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Houston, We Have Another Problem
Let's Unpack The Boil-Water Notice That Occurred Earlier This Week After A Power Outage At One Of The City's Water Purification Plants
It’s not even winter in Texas and already the power outages and boil-water notices have begun.
Millions of Houston residents found out Sunday night (or later) about a mandatory boil-water notice when the water pressure dropped below the required limit of 20 PSI during a power outage at the East Water Purification Plant on Sunday morning.
At a news conference Monday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city issued the notice in an “abundance of caution” after two transformers—a main one and its backup—“uniquely and coincidentally” failed at a water plant, according to a story in The Dallas Morning News. The problem affected the plant’s ability to treat and pump water into the transmission system, resulting in low pressure.
By Tuesday, water quality testing submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) confirmed that tap water once again met all regulatory standards, and the notice was lifted.
But not so fast! The order prompted officials to close public schools and inconvenienced many residents and business owners alike.
The bigger story here is about the frequency of boil notices, advisories and do-not drink orders, as they are becoming more common in cities and towns throughout the nation. They are indicative of larger drinking water problems at play and show the gaps and failures in our infrastructure.
Texas, being one of the worst offenders.
Back in February 2021, more than 14 million people were under boil-water notices thanks to extreme cold weather that challenged aging infrastructure at water municipalities across the state.
An estimated 1,550 boil-water advisories were issued in Texas in 2015, up from about 1,100 in 2012 and 650 in 2008, according to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In fact, from 2011 to 2016, boil-water notices in Texas increased by 73 percent, according to 2018 paper published in the Texas Water Journal with a total of 5,957 notices recorded during that period.
Population growth throughout the state has created higher demand for water on a system that’s already taxed.
Much of that responsibility for future planning falls to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), which works on the State Water Plan (SWP). The SWP is a five-year water planning guide for state water policy designed to anticipate and plan for the water needs of Texas based on conditions similar to the most recent drought of record. The SWP seeks to plan for the state’s water needs 50 years into the future.
The TWDB estimates that implementing the water projects recommended by the regional planning groups in the 2022 SWP will require $80 billion in capital costs for the next 50 years—and the agency expects $47 billion of that to come from state financial assistance programs.
President Biden’s infrastructure plan set aside about $35 billion for Texas projects, but it’s unclear how the money will be spent or what projects it will fund. The White House estimates that about $2.9 billion should be allotted specifically for drinking water infrastructure.
That still leaves a huge gap. Plus, weather conditions are not helping.
Study authors Sapna Mulki, Carlos Rubinstein and Julianne Saletta said in their 2018 paper that the rise in boil-water notices is most likely attributed to drought, because drought and soil moisture loss can damage water infrastructure.
“Severe droughts pose a threat to drinking water quality because the resulting loss of moisture in the soil often causes water pipelines in the ground to break or leak, which then compromises pressure in the system, triggering a boil water advisory,” Mulki said.
High-population regions like the Houston and Dallas metroplexes experienced higher than average boil-water notices during the study period. These regions account for more than 42 percent of the Texas population.
Thanks to aging infrastructure, rising population and extreme weather events from climate change, it seems like water-boil notices are on tracks to be as much a part of Texas life as barbecue and big hair.
But Texas isn’t the only offender when it comes to these notices.
From the calls and emails I receive, I could easily estimate that there are 1,500 boil- water advisories happening each month in the U.S., but no one is tracking them at the national level.
Suddenly losing access to clean water or wondering whether the water is safe to drink is both a huge inconvenience and a health hazard. No one wants to receive this kind of wake-up call.
Public utilities issue “boil-water orders” as a preventive public health advisory, usually when heightened levels of bacteria are detected in the water.
Boiling water helps kill both harmful bacteria and parasites. Residents are usually advised to bring water to a full rolling boil for at least one minute to kill any unwanted organisms.
Many people opt to drink and cook with bottled water during an advisory.
Either way, telling residents to boil water before they drink it helps make it safe for consumption, but certainly causes a lot of headaches for consumers and city officials alike.
Plus, there’s the issue of public trust.
A Communication Crisis?
Mulki and her study coauthors suggested in their paper that increasing strategic crisis communications about boil-water notices and other water issues is needed from public water systems.
The authors explained that a communications plan needs to show clarity, commitment, transparency, honesty, compassion and engagement to help foster trust between the public and the city.
“If utilities are not communicating in a timely fashion about when customers need to boil their water, that can cause a rift in the trust that the customers have in the utility and question the overall quality of the water being provided by the utility,” Mulki said.
I couldn’t agree more.
Texas can learn from past mistakes. Ineffective communication strategies, such as those experienced during the Corpus Christi water crisis in 2015–2016, can create a broken foundation of trust.
Corpus Christi city officials were slow to communicate the public about a chemical leak into water lines that sparked a series of boil-water notices. Most residents didn’t find out the cause and severity until watching the nightly news or through word of mouth. This miscommunication misstep weakened public trust in the Corpus Christi water system.
“Communicating in simple language can build public trust. Water infrastructure is so technical, and we use all this jargon as water professionals that doesn’t necessarily translate to everyday people who don’t deal with water issues,” Mulki said.
As Kevin Kevin Westerling wrote in a 2019 editorial for Water Online, “No utility wants to issue a boil-water notice, but if it does happen, it’s important to get it right. Even if your utility has had a long, unblemished record of delivering high-quality water, a mishandled contamination event will leave a bad taste in your customers’ mouths (so to speak). Like a field-goal kicker in football—and unfair as it may be—a big miss can overshadow years of trustworthy performance.”
Bring your voice to the table. What do you think about the boil-water notice in Texas? How can city official improve their communications strategies and rebuild trust after big water problems?